Welcome to the third and final post in the series of profiles I am writing about the three writers who inspired me (back when I was a mere stripling of 25!) to become a writer. This writer is the only non-American among the three: the Czech writer Ivan Klima.
Klima is probably the least well known (at least on the international stage) among my own personal Trinity of Ellroy-Roth-Klima. In his native Czech Republic, however, he is an established writer of significant stature – arguably eclipsing his (internationally better known) contemporary Milan Kundera while managing to be a wry chronicler of Prague life in the vein of that other famous Prague native, Franz Kafka.
I used to live in the Czech Republic (albeit briefly) and spent a period of eight years shuttling between the CR and the UK. My first visit was in 1989 – very soon after the Velvet Revolution – so I saw a lot of changes to both Praha (Prague) and the rest of the country over the best part of the decade that followed. Shortly before making the trip I had read Klima’s Love and Garbage which described the early morning rubbish collections by Prague’s bin men (who dressed in orange overalls). I was staying right in the centre of Praha in a flat in a street called Bilkova – and, on my first morning, I was woken by the orange-attired bin men clanking about on the cobbled streets below. Klima’s novel had just come to life!
My Czech friends used to tease me that it was “not the same” to “only” read Klima “in translation” and they would solemnly assure me that I was missing vital nuances that only native Czech speakers could appreciate. I would nod and continue reading my translated copies – aware that my Czech (which I had actually begun to pick up reasonably quickly) was limited to pillow talk and the ordering of food and drink (…well, what else do you need?, I hear you cry! Indeed amigos!). And so it remains btw!
My Czech then-girfriend, Jirina, also introduced me to the Czech writers Bohumil Hrabal and Karel Capek (…both in translation of course!) – who were/remain the most revered of Czech writers among the Czechs themselves (both are excellent btw – the Czechs are a truly ‘literary nation’ much in the way of the Irish). However, I remained secretly pleased that I had discovered Klima for myself – before I had even set foot in the country (and whether ‘in translation’ or not!)
A very odd coincidence concerning Klima thrilled me. After I had read several of his books – and spent a good few years making my many shuttle runs between the UK and the CR! – I discovered that Ivan Klima and Philip Roth (two of my three favourite writers) knew each other very well! The coincidence was revealed in Klima’s book The Spirit Of Prague; a collection of non-fiction writings (due for re-release – in translation!! – in 2011) that include a dialogue between Klima and Roth in which the two writers effectively interview each other (and share their thoughts on being writers on either side of the Iron Curtain). I read that book in 1996 at my girlfriend’s flat in Brno (the CR’s second city) – alongside Roth’s Operation Shylock. It was a happy, heady time that consolidated my conceit/vision (delete as appropriate folks!) that I should become a writer. Now, fourteen years later, I have one book (RUDE BOY) out there and another (LOVE, GUDRUN ENSSLIN – about which more in a future blog post) imminent.
Ivan Klima’s biography would make a fascinating book in its own right. (He has not yet written a formal autobiography – although many of his novels contain autobiographical elements and his non-fiction essays sometimes explore his childhood and beyond). To give you some idea of the many and varied experiences in Ivan Klima’s 79 years, I will provide a very brief and abbreviated summary.
He survived two totalitarian regimes – Nazism and Soviet Communism. He survived incarceration in the concentration camp, Terezin (Theresienstadt). He was liberated, aged 14 with a love of freedom and a burning desire to become a writer. His writing was then banned for 20 years in his native Czechoslovakia by the Stalinist Communist regime. He wrote ‘samizdat’ (banned) underground literature alongside Vaclav Havel (later President of the CR). He spent years under Communism as a hospital orderly and street cleaner. For three years before 1968 (during the brief window of democracy known as the “Prague Spring”) he edited the Journal of the Czech Writer’s Union. He was in London in 1968 when the Russian tanks rolled into Prague to subdue the growing popular clamour for democracy and freedom from censorship – yet Klima chose to return to his homeland even though he faced a publishing ban. Once the ban was lifted and his books were made available (in 1990) people queued for a mile along the length of Wenceslas Square (Vaclavska Namesti) and the print run for one novel alone was 150,000. He was deputy president of Czech PEN and often promotes Czech Greenpeace. He remains the most popular Czech writer……IN TRANSLATION!!
I met Ivan Klima in person once – at a London-based event organised by International PEN. I bought a signed copy of one of his books. I was a totally tongue-tied star-struck fan. I clapped him on the back and tried to find something profound to say about the effect of his writing on my own motivation to be a writer. I managed “Thanks for the books!” He (currently) remains the only one of my ‘Trinity’ I have actually met.
There is one other thing I should tell you about Ivan Klima. Today – 14th September – is his birthday. HAPPY BIRTHDAY IVAN! …and…thanks for the books!!